Imagine being asked to cull 1,000 volumes from the shelves of a library to represent a lifetime of reading. Where would you start? What principles would govern your selection? How would you explain the reasons for your choices?
That thought experiment will give you some idea of why it took me 14 years to get 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die between covers. Since I have been a bookseller for most of my adult life, I knew from the start that my project could never be the last word on a reading life, nor should it attempt to be. What I most hoped it would convey are the pleasures of browsing and the serendipity that bookstores nourish—pleasures that are a preface to all the stories readers compose out of their own lives.
One of my first jobs was working in an independent bookstore in Briarcliff Manor, New York. I learned to listen to customers and, eventually, to make useful, interesting and potentially life-changing recommendations. That last hyphenated adjective may sound grandiose, but the truth is that devoted booksellers—as Roger Mifflin, the protagonist of Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop (one of my 1,000 books), put it—are missionaries who seek “to spread good books about, to sow them on fertile minds, to propagate understanding and a carefulness of life and beauty.”
With that mission in mind, in 1986 I co-founded a mail-order catalog called A Common Reader and spent the next two decades running that venture, which, luckily for me, consisted of writing about books old and new, of every subject and style—an occupation that prepared me as well as any could for the task of writing this book.
Still, that task was daunting: A book about 1,000 books could take so many different shapes. It could be a canon of classics; it could be a history of human thought and a tour of its significant disciplines; it might be a record of popular delights (or even delusions). But the crux of the difficulty was a less complicated truth: Readers read in so many different ways, any one standard of measure is inadequate. No matter their pedigree, inveterate readers read the way they eat: for pleasure as well as nourishment, indulgence as much as well-being, and sometimes for transcendence. Hot dogs one day, haute cuisine the next.
Keeping such diversity of appetite in mind, I wanted to make my book expansive in its tastes, encompassing revered classics and commercial favorites, flights of escapist entertainment and enlightening works of erudition. There had to be room for novels of imaginative reach and histories with intellectual grasp. And since the project in its title invoked a lifetime, there had to be room for books for children and adolescents. What criteria could I apply to accommodate such a menagerie, to give plausibility to the idea that Where the Wild Things Are belongs in the same collection as In Search of Lost Time, that Aeneas and Sherlock Holmes or Elizabeth Bennet and Miss Marple could be companions, that a persuasive collection could begin, in chronological terms, with The Epic of Gilgamesh, inscribed on Babylonian tablets some 4,000 years ago, and end with Ellen Ullman’s personal history of technology, Life in Code, published in 2017?
Readers read the way they eat: for pleasure as well as nourishment, indulgence as much as well-being.
I came upon the clue I needed in a passage written by the critic Edmund Wilson, describing “the miscellaneous learning of the bookstore, unorganized by any larger purpose, the undisciplined undirected curiosity of the indolent lover of reading.” There, I knew instinctively, was a workable framework: What if I had a bookstore that could hold only 1,000 volumes, and I wanted to ensure it held not only books to be savored but also books that could be devoured in a night? A shop where any reading inclination might find reward, and where a reader’s search for what to read next would be guided by serendipity as well as intent. I’d arrange my books alphabetically by author, so that readers could find their way easily but make unexpected discoveries as they turned the pages, from, for example, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s magnificent work of scientific observation and imagination, On Growth and Form, to Flora Thompson’s celebration of life in an English country village, Lark Rise to Candleford, followed by Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Kay Thompson’s marvelous children’s book Eloise at the Plaza.
For a long time as I labored over building my metaphorical bookstore, a thousand books felt like far too many to get my head around, but now that I’m done, it seems too few by several multiples. Which is to say 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die is neither comprehensive nor authoritative; it is meant to be an invitation to discovery and a tool to prompt conversations about books and authors that are missing as well as those that are included, because the question of what to read next is the best prelude to more important ones, like who to be and how to live. Happy reading!
Along with his experience as a bookseller, lifelong book lover James Mustich worked as an editorial and product development executive in the publishing industry. His popular mail-order book catalog, A Common Reader, ended publication in 2006. He has collected a sweeping compendium of significant books in 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, a brilliant guidebook that’s filled with thoughtful essays and delightful asides. Mustich lives in Connecticut with his wife, Margot.
Author photo © Trisha Keeler Photography.